The covid-19 pandemic has forced millions to participate in one of the biggest social experiments of our time. Nearly two years in, it’s time to take stock: what happens when workers abandon offices?
15 December 2021
THE covid-19 pandemic has forced millions of us to participate in one of the biggest social experiments of our time: what would happen if office workers largely abandoned their workplaces and began working from home? More than 18 months in, it is time to take stock.
One thing seems clear: more people working remotely has brought some benefits for the environment. With less commuter traffic, wildlife has been able to reclaim urban spaces while people have been tapping away at their home keyboards.
But what about the benefits to people? The major perks of home working include people having more flexibility to mould jobs around their family, exercise and leisure time, being able to wear whatever they like, controlling their own heating and lighting and not having to commute. The lack of commuting may be the biggest bonus, since surveys show that workers typically rate their commute as the worst part of their day, unless they walk or cycle.
Many people have also been able to get more done while working remotely, possibly due to fewer distractions. A survey by Boston Consulting Group of 1500 managers at large European companies found that more than half had seen productivity levels rise as their employees shifted to remote work during the pandemic.
“There used to be a lot of resistance to working from home because managers thought employees would just goof off and watch Netflix, but there’s a lot more trust now,” says Sue Williamson at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.
However, the experiment hasn’t been all positive. Many people forced to work from home have reported feeling isolated and finding it harder to switch off due to the blurred boundary between work and home life.
“Surveys show that workers typically rate their commute as the worst part of their day”
Many managers have also reported declines in innovation, which is probably because “it’s hard to get those serendipitous conversations between people that spark ideas” when everyone is physically separated, says Anne Bardoel at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.
Then there is “Zoom fatigue”, the drained feeling that often accompanies virtual meetings, even though they tend to be shorter than in-person ones. This may be because people have a stronger sense of being on show while on screen and feel more pressure to present well, says Allison Gabriel at the University of Arizona.
As vaccines help to control covid-19, many organisations are hoping to reap the best of both worlds by letting employees work from home on some days and travel to the office on others. The coming months and years will undoubtedly involve trial and error as companies and employees settle on the optimum mix of office and work-from-home days. But one thing seems certain: now that office workers have been given a chance to really think about how they want their work lives to look, there is no turning back.
“It is this opportunity to reset and rethink how we actually work, and I think that’s a very positive thing,” says Bardoel.
2021 in review
This was a year of tackling great challenges, from the covid-19 pandemic to climate change. But 2021 was also rich in scientific discoveries and major advances.
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